As before, there are only three kinds of social science “news” stories. When the “news” deigns to inform you of your nature or your mental acumen, the breathless revelation will come in one of these forms:
1. We now know we know nothing!
2. Your good behavior is not to your credit, but at least your bad behavior is not your fault!
3. Dancing Bears are just as smart as you!
Pre-fab “news” form factor number two is, in its essence, a Ghost-in-the-Machine argument: Either your behavior is entirely controlled by your biology (hormones, brain chemistry, genes, defective genes, brain defects, drugs, pheromones, memes, et infinitely cetera), or your brain’s illusion of self-control is as real and as dispositive as a child playing the demo mode of a coin-op video game. Or both.
Today’s New York Times features an article that lays a big deuce on your belief in your own free will:
They’ll fail because they’ll eventually run out of willpower, which social scientists no longer regard as simply a metaphor. They’ve recently reported that willpower is a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control.
The result is “ego depletion,” as this state of mental fatigue was named by Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University (and my co-author of a book on willpower). He and many of his colleagues have concluded that the way to keep a New Year’s resolution is to anticipate the limits of your willpower. [Emphasis added.]
The article as a whole is about New Year’s Resolutions and tactics for keeping them. The rest of it is quite a bit less bad than the matter I am quoting here.
And, of course, the parenthetical text I emphasized is the actual reason for writing the article. Why did the author produce this essay? To sell more books? Heck, no! His blood-sugar made him do it!
Oh, wait? Is the claim the depleted blood sugar affects your mood? You might think you need a book to absorb an idea that profound, but Snickers can name that tune in 30 seconds. The author’s practical strategies are not terrible, but the Ghost-in-the-Machine premise undermines his practical ideas: If by tracking my behavior, I am more likely to attain my goals (in its turn a Deathgrip-on-the-Obvious revelation), why am I not failing to track my behavior when my blood sugar is in a snit? How does one write a book under the inconquerable influence of blood sugar? How does one read one? What besides free will is the New York Times hoping for when it puts a price on its product?
Yes, I’m being arch about a Straw Man, but that’s the point: The blood sugar argument itself is a Straw Man. There are a great host of biological factors that influence the human mind, but it remains that some people write symphonies and some people don’t even learn how to whistle the tunes. The difference is not blood sugar, nor any other ancillary factor. The difference is not will power but simply will. When you want something done, you get it done. When you don’t, you don’t.
Meanwhile, here’s a little tip for sustaining your blood sugar throughout the day: Fresh fruit. Once you catch the scent of a freshly-peeled orange, you’ll be powerless to resist it.